It’s difficult not to compare Audrey Diwan’s brutal, bracing Happening to Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always or Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Granted, given they are all three accomplished dramas detailing the potential terror of an unwanted pregnancy, it’s hardly a nuanced comparison. Each of the films document the cruel mundanities and chilly societal attitudes faced by those seeking an abortion. While Hittman and Mungiu’s films at least center around the supportive strength of the sororal bond that develop between women facing a crisis, Diwan is no such optimist. Instead, the Happening director expertly dramatizes the icy-cold isolation of a society intent on treating an inevitable reality as an unforgivable taboo.
We are France in 1963. Abortion will not legalized for another 12 years. Reserved literature student Anne (Anamaria Vartolomei) is enjoying good grades and a vibrant social life. Among her friends, the seemingly timid Anne appears the least affable and sexually active so it is a surprise to both her and us when she discovers she is pregnant during a doctor’s visit. For her, having a baby will not just mean added responsibility at a young age but also an immediate end to her studies in exchange for a full-time life as a mother. It’s the latter of which she finds most intolerable and, following a short period of denial, leads her to seek out abortion methods. As she herself notes “I would like a child someday, just not in exchange for a life.”
Happening is based on the autobiographical novel of the same name by author Annie Ernaux, and Diwan’s seering social realism more than backs up the “based on true events” claim the trailer makes. This is a masterful piece of subjective filmmaking. While maybe technically catagorised as a drama, there are elements of thriller here. For those who feel trapped, the experience must feel something close to a body horror, and that is exactly how Diwan represents it. The unstoppable bulging belly, the unpredictable hormonal changes: symptoms usually welcomed during a planned pregnancy are almost assaults on the anatomy for Anne. Even the updates on which term week we are on, something ominously flashed on the screen throughout, are more like the minutes ticking down on a time bomb than any heartwarming reminders on fetus development.
It’s not only Anne’s body which betrays her, but the community too. Her closest friends rebuke calls for support, even if the potential criminal charges make the apprehension understandable. A doctor who seems initially understanding provides her with medication to supposedly aid termination before it’s revealed the drug only strengthens the embryo’s growth. The man who shares responsibility for the conception is more concerned with Anne’s dismissive attitude towards his peers than her visible distress. She is shamed by other women in her dormitory for her alleged promiscuity. Diwan is eager for Ernaux’s feelings of total alienation to be as keenly felt as her unwanted physical changes.
The supremely watchable Vartolomei is in every scene, with the probing gaze of the camera seeming almost cruel as it refuses to give her a moment to hide. The actress is more than up to the challenge. With the exception of a devastating late scene, she must emote mostly through repressed looks and a restrained vexation that rears its head more as the terror of her situation mounts. Her forcibly hushed rage always feels palpable and her eventual desperation comes off as genuine anguish. Vartolomei won a Cesar award for her efforts, and it’s hard to disagree with that decision. This is a revelatory performance, and it’s doubtless that we will see more of her in the future.
In the final third, Happening’s sensory overload might be too much for some, but there is no questioning the quality of the filmmaking. Anne’s first attempts to terminate by her own hands is nothing short of wince-inducing. The results of an eventual backstreet abortion are certainly no easy watch either. Many may recoil at the explicit nature of the images, but for the topic in question, it’s essential for the brutal reality of the situation to be shown. Regardless of where you sit on the abortion debate, few would be able to argue that criminalisation has in anyway provided dignity to Anne’s experience.
It may seem otherwise, based on this review, but Diwan is not a didactic director. Happening has little soap-box declaration on display. Anne’s experience is represented in a matter-of-fact fashion. It’s a sobering presentation of something that is unquestionably an all-too-familiar reality for many to this day. It must be said there are still minor acts of kindness throughout: A college student who has been there and provides guidance, a more sexually active friend who reminds Anne she deserves anything but ignominy. These brief examples of humanity both alleviate our protagonist’s suffering and also stall the film’s relentless march toward total despair. If there’s a message here, it’s that marginalisation can be murder.